Why China's Communists Love Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter was in Beijing last week to meet with Chinese communists, and, as usual, the former president was up to no good. Yet again, he helped legitimized dictatorial leaders and thereby made the world a little darker.

Mr. Carter was in the Chinese capital to open two days of events to mark the 30th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, which occurred during his presidency. While there, he was effusive in his praise for the Communist Party's record in recent years. "Not even Deng Xiaoping could have anticipated the glorious changes that have taken place in this wonderful country," Carter gushed.

Is "glorious" the right word? According to the 39th president, "There's been tremendous changes made in China, and I would expect that same trend toward more openness, more freedom, more participation in government by the people will continue."

Should we take Carter's word for developments in China? Is there, in fact, "more openness"? Do the Chinese people have "more freedom"? Is there "more participation in government by the people"?

China as a society is certainly more open today than it was when Mao Zedong died in 1976, and it is even more open now than it was in 1997, when Deng, Mao's successor, passed away. Yet the country is more "open" -- in all meanings of that term -- because of economic change. And since Deng's death the credit for economic change belongs mostly to the Chinese people, who have pushed their government to restructure and reform. Their leaders -- first Jiang Zemin and now Hu Jintao -- have tried to slow the pace of positive change, however. For the last decade, the Communist Party has mostly tinkered with rules and sponsored almost as many regressive measures as reforms, working to close off China's internal market to foreign goods and services, for instance. The Communist Party resisted the one major advance in this period -- accession to the World Trade Organization -- and joined the global trading body only when it was forced by external circumstances to do so.